Mangaung prison firm fights to keep G4S contract operational

Urgent court application led to about-turn on termination

02 August 2023 - 08:42
By Mpho Sibanyoni
The Mangaung Correctional Centre in Bloemfontein. File photo.
Image: Mlungisi Louw The Mangaung Correctional Centre in Bloemfontein. File photo.

A company contracted to guard the Mangaung prison in partnership with the department of correctional services says it is not the worst-run correctional facility in the country despite the infamous escape by Thabo Bester.

The company said the escape by rapist and murderer Bester was an isolated incident.

Its application in court, in which it details its engagements with justice and correctional service minister Ronald Lamola, is what led to the department of correctional services’ about-turn on the cancellation of the contract. The department confirmed last week that it had agreed to a mediation process which was made an order of the court.

In its affidavit, Bloemfontein Correctional Contracts (BCC), a holding company in a public-private partnership with the department of correctional services to run the Mangaung prison, argued the cancellation was procedurally flawed and invalid.

Director John Mokoena accused Lamola of bowing to public pressure when he decided to send them a notice of termination of the contract which has been running since 2000.

He cited the facility’s track record of four escapes from custody, including Bester’s, in its 23 years compared to 515 escapes from other prisons in the past 10 years. Bester escaped from the facility in May last year.

“The escape of Bester has a narrative that drew public and media attention and brought focus to bear on security at the prison. The popular narrative didn’t have regard to the sophisticated measures in place to prevent prison escapes and the record of the applicant [through its subcontractor G4S Correctional Services Bloemfontein] over more than two decades of preventing escapes from the prison,” he said.

Justice and correctional services minister Ronald Lamola. File photo.
Image: Brenton Geach Justice and correctional services minister Ronald Lamola. File photo.

“The implementation of the purported notice of termination will have far-reaching implications for [BCC], G4S and its subcontractors, and potentially on the prison population, the personnel employed at the prison and the public at large.”

BCC challenged Lamola’s termination notice in the high court in Pretoria last week. This culminated in a court order directing the department and company which subcontracts G4S to run and manage the prison to seek mediation in their dispute.

On May 2, the same day the department sent a 90-day notice of termination to BCC, Lamola said legal opinion had been obtained before the notice was served.

Mokoena said representatives for BCC and Lamola met to discuss the Bester incident and the notice of termination on May 11 in Cape Town.

Mokoena said Lamola was amenable to considering options other than the termination of the contract and it was agreed BCC would identify possible alternatives to ending the contract. 

On May 25, Mokoena said, BCC sent a letter to Lamola in which it expressed its commitment to continue to uphold its obligations under the concession agreement between the company and the department. He said on June 13 BCC sent proposals to Lamola for the continued operation of the agreement and disputed validity of the notice of termination on grounds that it was procedurally and substantively flawed.

“ [BCC] also disputed the validity of the notice of termination and stated [Lamola’s] conduct in issuing the notice of termination amounted to a repudiation of the concession contract.

“In this regard [BBC] confirmed its election not to accept [Lamola’s] repudiation of the concession agreement and that it intended to hold the parties to their respective obligations in the agreement.”

Mokoena said the company followed up with the minister on a number of occasions, including June 22, to arrange a further meeting to explore proposals it had put forward but had not received a response.

He said Lamola eventually responded to BCC’s letter on July 5, advising them he had not changed his mind on the notice of termination. Lamola also told BCC the proposals they had put forward to continue running the prison were unacceptable.

But after an urgent application was filed with the high court challenging the termination, the department announced four days before the termination was to come into effect that it would embark on a mediation process.

The mediation is expected to conclude on or before August 31 and Lamola has been ordered not to take steps to implement the termination pending the final determination.

In the event of failure by mediation to resolve the dispute, the parties agreed to set down urgent application in court on September 19 for urgent determination.

When asked what the G4S court challenge meant for the contract, correctional services spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo said: “BCC and DCS are to embark on a mediation process. A court order affirmed this. It specified the timelines so the process is protected from undue delays.” 

Nxumalo said the department is ready to take over the Mangaung prison and “plans are in place for smooth transition”.